Interview: Juan Stockenstroom

Juan Stockenstroom‘s interest is informed by the experimentation of photography, sculpture and post-production and how in particular these practices intersect and conflict. He conceives photography as a process where both chance and decision contribute to the final presentation of his work. Between the release of the shutter and final printed image, a relentless exploration and experimentation take place. The basic photograph doesn’t render as just an image but rather as the result of cause and effect. The process itself is never the same and adapts to the object or subject that is being studied. He is curious about the way in which visual content impacts society. His work is concerned with the everyday mundane meeting subtle twists which are often forced in the post-production processes to create a “visual hyperbole”.

Otherness

South African identity can be seen as the construction of a norm against which all “others” are defined. This construction has set up a social order against which race, sexual orientation, gender and faith is measured. In South Africa this norm has been engineered by a history of slavery, colonialism, and apartheid, with some groups being rendered un-autonomous—their identity defined only by comparison to the imagined norm.

Through morphed and exaggerated portraits, this work investigates the notion of otherness in South Africa’s millennial generation. While the antiquated understanding social and cultural norms still stand, a new generation of independent radical thinkers in South Africa are redefining social identity and sitting comfortably within their otherness. They are a new generation – redefining norms and taking ownership of their social identities.

The title of this new series, “Otherness”, serves as a near hyperbolic description of the work, but as you write in your statement, also points to psychological, social, and cultural constructions of “the other”. What type of “otherness” are you considering here?

The otherness explores and points to a combination of psychological, social, and cultural constructions. Some of my research was derived from casual conversations that I had with the subjects who participated in the project. It was interesting to hear how they saw themselves foremost, and then how they saw themselves in society, followed by how they think they are seen within society.

Another part of this was a silly play on words, thinking what an “Other” (another) version of somebody might look like if I could reconstruct them.

What I find particularly interesting about this body of work is that you have employed these hyper-formal traits of classical portrait photography-stark background; angled posture—softly averted gaze, dramatic lighting—with the obvious gestures of post-production. What is your thinking behind that?

I’m not the greatest technical person when it comes to lighting, so most of the look and feel came together by the sum of little incremental decisions and constant experimenting, which would often be scrapped along the way and I would start over.

The only fixed idea I had in my head from the beginning was to have the body of work in black and white. I felt it really tied in well with the hard lighting, adding an almost eerie 1940’s or 1950’s Film Noir aesthetic to the portraits.

Your use of high contrast, black and white processing, and “blank” backgrounds in these photographs also readily recalls Richard Avedon’s series of portraits “In the American West” (1985). Considering the nature of this work, and Avedon’s own interest in “the other” (although incidental), was that an intentional aesthetic reference?

Not at all, but thank you for bringing that to light as the similarities are quite fascinating, so perhaps I shared similar inspirations to that of Avedon. As I mentioned, I was influenced partially by the Film Noir aesthetic. I think at the inception of the project I had seen a 1945 British anthology horror film called Dead of Night. The lighting and tone of this film was definitely an influence on the aesthetic of the project.

The use of post-production in these photographs works well to exaggerate and abstract your subjects almost to the point of un-recognizability. Do you consider these photographs to still function as portraits?

Yes, I think they do still serve as portraits, even though the subjects in each image have been reconstructed physically to present an alternative version of themselves. I feel that the idiosyncrasies of each sitter are still preserved. The portraits function beyond the final image and what the viewer can see; there is a process of collaboration that takes place between the sitter and myself and this process is important to me as it really plays a part when moving into the post-production stage of the project. I am left with an experience to accompany the reconstruction of the subject creating a great sense of responsibility.

Can you talk to me about that process? It looks as though to achieve this amalgam of physical “otherness”, you have used the clone stamp to repeat features that are individual to each person. Why this method of post-production?

No clone stamp is used at all in the work. I feel the clone stamp tool is too automatic and removes the labor. The multiple features seen in each image are carefully shot in camera by asking each sitter to move in slight increments to reveal different facial angles. Once this is done, each photograph is taken into post-production and carefully placed over each other. A selection process takes place to determine what the overall structural features of the sitter will look like. Once this has been decided I get to work and finesse everything, spending several days to create one image.

What is the significance of this new generation of independent thinkers that you have photographed in Otherness?

I think the new generation of independent thinkers are currently laying a foundation that will determine how generations to come will navigate their sense of purpose and belonging in society. I think it will open doors that were previously locked or taboo in society and create discussion and hopefully understanding.

How do you foresee “Otherness” in the future?

That is quite a difficult question. I imagine the populated space of the future with different possible paradigms of subjectivity and social organization, that afford a tantalizing opportunity to challenge and re-envision traditional power structures. This also opens up the question of what role will technology play. Science fiction has often portrayed the rise and role of AI in society as “the other” which I find quite interesting. I believe only time will tell.

To view more of Juan Stockenstroom’s work please visit his website.



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